Food Tales

A Chef’s Tour of Asheville

by Team Fathom
Everyone shops at Tailgate Market. Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville.

Produced in partnership with Explore Asheville.

It’s a good idea not to eat before coming to Asheville, because the hungrier you are, the happier you’ll be that you found your way here. The bounty starts with farm-fresh produce and locally made craft beers, wines, and cheeses. They’re all pretty tasty on their own, but are taken to new heights at the renowned restaurants featuring regional as well as global cuisines. Dining in Asheville is an absolute feast.

Chef Ashleigh Shanti is a shining example of what many chefs have found in Asheville — a welcoming community of diners who are hungry (literally!) for new flavors as well those rooted in traditions. In Ashleigh‘s case, those traditions go back to a childhood spent in Southern Appalachia, snapping beans at her great-grandmother’s house in the mountains, where she became immersed in the foodways that have informed her culinary style.

“I have fond memories of my great grandmother having shelves filled with jars – of pickles, of chow-chow, of dried mushrooms. Of greasy beans strung up above her wood stove. She had a vegetable garden and a smokehouse where she smoked her own ham. If it didn’t grow in the garden, we didn’t eat it,” Shanti recalls. “I think about the things we do in kitchens today that seem so trendy, like dehydrating foods to intensify flavors — they’re all rooted in old traditions.”

Chef Ashleigh Shanti, left; a photo of her great grandmother in her garden. Photos courtesy of Ashleigh Shanti.

Raised in a military family in Virginia Beach, she came to Asheville as chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, the restaurant at The Foundry Hotel, with local restaurateur John Fleer in October 2018. “It was fate that John was hoping to tap a chef who felt passionate about the influence of Black cuisine on the region. He told me about the Block, the historic Black neighborhood where Benne is located. We had some of the same ideas, and it was one of those moments where I felt like it was for me. I moved to Asheville on a Thursday and started working on Friday, and we opened six weeks later.”

The accolades quickly followed. Benne on Eagle was named one of America’s Best New Restaurants 2019 by Bon Appetit, and Shanti was nominated as a Rising Star Chef in the James Beard Awards, one of Eater’s Young Guns in 2019, and one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” by The New York Times. Her star will continue to rise and her reputation grow even more after her star-making turn on Top Chef this season.

Benne survived the pandemic, feeding the immunocompromised as well as essential workers during the first two months when they were closed to customers, then opening for takeout before resuming full service. Shanti left Benne on good terms in October 2020 because “I was ready to start my own restaurant. I gave Benne on Eagle my all. But there are no 100-percent, Black-owned restaurants in town, and this was incredibly important to me. I wanted to have full ownership of my story.”

Her story, when it opens in South Slope, will be Good Hot Fish, a casual fish fry restaurant that she’s been exploring through monthly popups since last summer. The cheeky name and the concept are an homage to her early lesson in women’s entrepreneurship. “The women in my family had created a side hustle: frying the fish my family had access to through our coastal connections and selling it after church services on Sunday and in the community. ‘Hot fish, get your good hot fish,’ they would announce.”

Her modern take on the classic Southern fish fry centers around North Carolina wild blue catfish and Jimmy Red cornmeal grown in Appalachia’s Low Country. Side dishes change “based on seasonality and my mood” and include green tomato chow-chow, soup beans, and hot slaw. (Follow @goodhotfish on Instagram for updates on pop-ups.)

A feast at Good Hot Fish. Photo from @goodhotfish courtesy of Ashleigh Shanti.

Asked why the culinary scene in and around Asheville is so rich, she says, “It speaks to the diversity of the mountains. This region is an area where people wanted to be free, where they feel connected to the land but not bound to it. This land represents several ethnicities, and people trying to find their place. Finding a place culturally often means doing it through food because we find identity in food. Asheville is definitely a place where creatives have the opportunity to thrive. We are very big supporters of creatives in the arts, of makers, and of growers.”

Herewith, Ashleigh’s little black book of favorite places to eat, drink, and be hungry in and around Asheville.

Where to Eat

Neng’s Jr.
Newcomer
Chef Silver Cousler has blessed some of Asheville’s best restaurants with their talents. After cooking all over the world, they’ve now graced us with our town’s very first Filipinx restaurant. One word: GO!

Tastee Diner
Old haunt
Tastee Diner has been serving Asheville for nearly a century. Local badass chef Steve Goff and his lovely partner Sam recently took the reins and turned this into the perfect hang that stays live until 2 a.m.

Forestry Camp
Casual
No reservations necessary for this cool and casual spot in near Biltmore Village. You’ll find an array of local beer and wine and an approachable menu with chef-driven items like house-cured meats, sandwiches, and pappardelle with boiled peanut jus.

Cucina 24
Fancy
Cucina24 is as close to Italy you can get in these Southern Mountains. Chef Brian Canipelli’s tasting menus will transport you to the mountains of Alto Adige or the ancient roads of Campagia depending on how he’s feeling. All of this is topped off with exceptional service and a solid wine list.

Where to Drink

Session at Citizen Vinyl
Newcomer
Cafe by day, bar by night. Come here if you’re looking for the perfect tunes to accompany your hand-crafted, aperitivo cocktail.

Visuals Wine
At old haunts Forestry Camp or Burial Beer Co.
Burial Beer Co. is certainly not new to beerheads, but Visuals Wine might be. Doug and Jess Reiser, founders of one of the city’s favorite breweries, now make porch-pounding fermented wines, ciders, and aperitifs.

Leo’s House of Thirst
Casual
Leo’s is a cozy little neighborhood wine bar in West Asheville where locals hang. They’ve got a killer wine list that satiates my pet-nat fix, and chef Austin Inselmann bangs out drool-worthy bites from their tiny kitchen.

Antidote at Chemist Spirits
Fancy
Nestled in the action-packed South Slope part of Asheville, this apothecary-style haunt will cure all your ailments. It’s the perfect place to get dressed up, grab a cocktail, and take in the mountain views from the rooftop.

Looking Glass Creamery. Photo courtesy of Explore Asheville.

Stay Hungry!

North Asheville Tailgate Market
You’ll find everyone here on Saturday mornings on the campus of UNC Asheville. The start time changes based on season, either 8 or 10 a.m. Highlights are beef jerky, flowers, and honey from Hickory Nut Gap, and krauts and chow-chow from Serotonin Ferments. The chefs shop here.

Southside Community Farmers Market
Asheville has a plethora of incredible farmers markets. This one is special because it supports the Black and brown makers in our region. You’ll find produce, prepared foods, herbal medicine, and more. It’s held each Sunday at noon in Southside Community Farm’s parking lot.

Trial to Table
The Utopian Seed Project is a trial farm in our community that does great work for diversifying agriculture in our region. At their Trial to Table series, ticket-goers can experience trial crops firsthand in the form of varietal tastings and small bites created by some of our most talented local chefs.

Goombay
The vibrant weekend festival held every September at The Block, Asheville’s historically Black business district, highlights Asheville’s rich Black culture, with great music and local makers.

The Cheese Scene
Looking Glass Creamery makes a great fromage blanc. Three Graces Dairy has amazing cheeses, including a really nice bleu. And Ashe County Cheese – I just love their cheddar.

And there's so much more to love and eat because Asheville is for Foodies.

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